Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Countdown, Part 2: Princeton, and Back to Reality

I'm seriously back dating this post.

Life as it's been for the past year finally came to a screeching halt about two months ago. I've been in decompression mode ever since. My last post left off at the Grounds for Sculpture, so I'll finish that trip while doing some flash forwards about returning to the classroom.

In between sessions, a group of us took a walking tour of Princeton University, one last "whose life is this anyway" moments. Walking among the ivy covered buildings on a quiet fall afternoon, where if the walls could talk, they would tell the tales of some of the world's most brilliant minds. I felt like one of the multi-colored leaves clinging tightly to the tree branches above us as we passed the towering halls and students consumed in making their way to the next class.

East Pyne Hall
Statue of John Witherspoon, Princeton's 5th president

Nassau Hall

Where's Berkeley?

College and career ready.  It's the new set of buzz words in education, and the driving force behind changes to standards, testing, and accountability. Students need to be competitive with their peers across the globe upon graduation from high school, and it's now or never. Coming back into the classroom on a full time schedule, in the midst of changes, stress, and uncertainty, while wrapping up my year representing West Virginia's students, has been the equivalent to being struck by a huge wave on the beach and being pulled into the ocean from its force. The wave is full of new things, different things, and all the emotions that people feel when they are bombarded, threatened by expectations that seem to be made up faster than they can be comprehended.

I think back to that afternoon on Princeton's campus, walking between some of the world's brightest young people. College and career ready. What truly makes you fit that mantra as a student? Is it knowing everything you need to know to pass a test? Is it proving on benchmark after benchmark that you've increased the expected number of data points?

What if we press and stress ourselves  and our students so much that, while they know everything they need to know, they have no desire, no curiosity, to take their learning further? I'd like to think that's what drives those who aspire to learn and improve - passion, perseverance, and curiosity. I recently wrote an article for EdSurge discussing how I feel the current state of testing is impeding what teachers need to have the freedom to do: teach.

There's a beautiful chapel on the Princeton Campus. When it was built, it was the second largest university chapel in the world, and the largest in the United States. Constructed of limestone from Pennsylvania and Indiana, it's not so much the Gothic architecture that is truly moving. A place of worship is a place to seek solace, to freely express beliefs, and the appearance of this structure among the historic buildings is a reminder of what many came to our country seeking long ago.

Princeton Chapel

I've run solely on adrenaline most of this year. And angst. Keeping it real, falling down between the train steps and platform in Germany two summers ago was just the beginning of living in high survival mode. I've just kept going, solving, improvising, and hoping that I wouldn't crack. There's been no recovery time in between. I've bared my soul to countless teachers and students this year about how I'm broken, because it was a message that needed to be heard and was just as important to be shared as anything instructional.

None of it has been easy or come easy. I look back at some of the situations from the past year, be it weather or people related, and I simply don't know how I got through it. I fight a very real beast every day. It's name is anxiety. I respect that religion and public school are separated, but I cannot deny that where I am and what I've been able to accomplish are a direct result of my faith. I did it - we  did it - but not without an immense amount of work. What I really need now to find is some balance - and some peace.

We continued our stroll down the sidewalks and buildings adjacent to the college campus. The wind started to pick up a bit by now as we took a walk through New England history.

President's Home

Nassau Club

Princeton Seminary


Albert Einstein's Home...and Berkeley

Exposed Beam Architecture 

Fade to Orange

Soon it was time to head back to say our good byes. Being pulled out of your classroom to travel alone and to make do by yourself as a "job" feels a little bit (just a little) like Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away, but instead of Wilson the volleyball, I have Berkeley the Bear (except I don't have deep, insightful conversations with Berkeley). How extraordinary to have had the opportunity to share this year with 53 other teachers that could relate to being abruptly named a spokesperson for the profession.
Lunch earlier that day with our groups from Scottsdale

Nebraska, Iowa, New Jersey, Maine, Ohio, and West Virginia

Final dinner with Virgin Islands, Delaware, Rhode Island, Arizona, Illinois, Texas, and Louisiana

"What's it like to be back? Do you miss it?"

I miss the people. I miss the faces and the stories that have now become memories, because they've become a part of my story. But the journey and all it entails is just something you travel once - and for good reason.

"How's it feel to be back with fifth graders all day long?"

I laugh. a lot. I want my classroom to be a happy place. Something so simple is really quite necessary. Adolescence is a trying, confusing time for kids. And on top of that, you have to become career and college ready. The only antidote to all that "heavy" is to find the joy. One of the national teachers of the year encouraged us during our time at Princeton to go not where we feel pushed, but where we feel pulled.

My "pull" is to find the joy, not just for my students but for anyone who teaches. So much of the joy and light of this profession is being overshadowed by looming numbers, expectations, demands, and fear. Worst of all, is fear, because that poisons all the good that grows among the thorns. I feel pulled to lift others to where they deserve to be - I just need to let myself down for a bit to get some rest.

"Well, now what are you going to do?"

I guess we'll all have to wait and see.